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Vera Kurtid

Roma Lesbian Existence

Ni, 2013

European Roma Rights Centre Gender Research Fellowship
This research was financed through the European Roma Rights
Centre Gender Equality Research Fellowship, a unique program
that provides financial and technical support for activists working at
a local level to conduct research on Roma gender equality issues.
The report reflects the assessment and opinion of the author, but
does not necessarily reflect the assessment and opinion of the

Duvljarke *uvlrke+ is a term from the Roma language
(Romani) and used among Roma living in Serbia. Together
with its Serbian-influenced suffix, it is used to refer to a
lesbian, a woman emotionally and sexually oriented towards
women. This term usually implies a negative connotation,
particularly within the heteronormative patriarchal Serbian
and Romani social matrix.

All interviewees personal information and
potentially identifying details have been
altered to protect their identities and
Let us use our invisibility to our benefit!

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I Introduction

Silence, ever more than
diversity, is a force of
women's oppression
within the power coming
from women gathering in
solidarity and support, lies
the possibility of complete
expression and change.
Chris Corrin

The importance of publishing this paper
It has been a while since the idea to conduct this
research project and publish the results was first born
within me because I personally believe it is important to

Chris Corrin, ed., Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian
Existence (Zagreb: Kontra, 2002), Forward, Croatian edition.
Translation from Croatian: Vera Kurtic

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speak about Romani lesbians living in Serbia. Within the
general discourse of the majority non-Roma Serbian
population Romani women are usually only mentioned
as the subjects of racist and sexist jokes. Negative
images of Romani women are common in the Serbian
media, which often characterizes Romani women as
criminals or as parasites burdening social care system.
News stories and articles about Romani women are
almost always followed by a number of racist comments
on interactive news web sites or on social media On the
other hand, within the circles that can be defined as the
Roma activist, there are oftentimes talks about Romani
women emphasizing their traditional roles and
responsibilities towards the community and the family,
as the ones whose job it is to hold the home together.
Generally speaking, the existence of Romani lesbians is
either ignored or when they are talked about, it is in a
manner that denies their equality with others. In this
way, Romani lesbians living in Serbia suffer from
multiple forms of marginalization, forced to live an
invisible existence, and as such remain vulnerable to all
possible forms of discrimination and violence. The aim
of this paper is to ensure that when lesbian existence is
discussed, the conversation opens a path leading to the
empowerment of these women, who are, at the
moment nameless and invisible and remain objects of
shame and victims of multiple forms of violence and
Present day society provides just enough space to allow
people to assume that the experiences of all individual

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members of a marginalized group are the same as the
other members of that group. However, when we look
more closely at the lives of these individuals, we see
that this is not the case and actions directed to
discussing multiple discrimination are few. There have
been some efforts aimed at revealing the intersections
of multiple-discrimination confronting Romani women,
and this paper is a contribution to those initiatives as
my intention is to draw attention to the multiple-
discrimination faced by lesbians of Roma origin living in
Serbia. Just fifteen years ago, in Serbia as well as in
other East European countries, it was unimaginable to
talk about Romani women and the fact that they suffer
multiple-discrimination. It was Romani women
themselves who introduced this topic and pushed for
the inclusion of Romani womens rights on the womens
and Roma rights political agendas. However, other
efforts to include Romani womens rights in various
rights movements made by others claiming to speak for
Romani women did not adequately represent Romani
women or their lives, and demonstrated a partial or
even complete lack of understanding of Romani
womens experiences or needs. Often these attempts to
include Romani womens rights in political agendas
actually reinforced common stereotypes and ended up
replicating Romani womens oppression and exclusion.
There are a number of examples where Roma activists,
or those who identify themselves as such, attempted to
address, or raise awareness about Romani womens
issues, however, these attempts usually centered on

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organizing folklore events, which were aimed at
preserving and promoting tradition. Other efforts
actually perpetuated gender roles by focusing solely on
reproductive health issues among Roma populations. In
fact, there has been strong resistance coming from the
mainstream, male-dominated Roma Rights movement
to solely discuss Romani women. I myself have received
instructions from some Roma activists that I am only
allowed to speak publicly about Romani womens
oppression within the context of forced sterilizations
perpetrated by state institutions in the region, and I
have also been warned that I should never mention the
arranged marriages or bride sales which occur in my
own Roma community. When it comes to the
mainstream, majority society womens movement and
womens civil society groups generally
, Romani
womens rights have been and remain an area of little
interest, and for most feminist organizations there is
neither time nor space on their political agendas to
think or act either on behalf of or together with Romani
women. As a Romani woman, when I am among
womens rights and feminist activists, I am often
subjected to the commonly held opinions claiming that

In this paper, I make a distinction between womens and feminist
groups as not all womens groups are necessarily feminist, just as
feminism is not always or necessarily a woman-only space. Except
in theory, such a distinction is not always clear. It is especially
important to stress that not all Romani women activists are
automatically feminists, just as not all lesbians are feminists or

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Romani women can achieve exactly the same rights and
quality of life as other women if they only try hard
enough, and moreover, how non-Romani women are
fed up with Romani women and their demands. As a
lesbian, I can say that a similar dialogue takes place
regarding sexual orientation. The experiences of Romani
lesbians living in Serbia are a clear example illustrating
the intersecting burdens of gender, race, nationality,
class and minority sexual existence.
Women of color have made progress in their fight for
inclusion and equal representation in the mainstream
Western liberal feminist movement, but also politically.
Because of their continuing efforts, these women have
greatly influenced the Romani womens rights
movement, in terms of both theory and activism. Our
black sisters inspire and sustain us as activists, and in
our work to develop a theoretical framework that
includes the multidimensional marginalization of
Romani women, especially by introducing it through the
notion of intersectionality
. The idea of the intersections
of race, class, gender and sexual orientation became the
subjects of political theories which first sprang out of
legal academic circles in the US. Legal scholars had

The notion intersectionality itself was introduced into feminist
theory in 1989 by feminist theorist and attorney, Kimberly
Crenshaw in her work Mapping the Margins. This work represents
an important contribution to feminist scholarship, and has become
a standard within the multidisciplinary approach when examining
identities and discrimination.

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become aware of the potential dangers of so-called
neutral and objective law and legislation, which does
not mean that women activists had not been aware of
the intersectional dimension of different types of
oppressions onto their lives even before this term was
introduced. They realized that racism, sexism,
homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, classism and all
other forms of discrimination are related and cannot be
examined separately from one another. Despite the
growing acceptance of Intersectionality theory in the US
and mainstream Western Liberal feminism, the idea of
the intersection of different oppressionsracism and
homophobiafor example, is rarely applied when it
comes to Romani women in Serbia. I contend that the
topic of intersectionality deserves greater attention in
Serbia as well as in other countries in the region and it is
my hope that this paper will serve as a tool to
encourage these discussions and lead to a
comprehensive political agenda that includes the
human rights of LGBT Roma.
The topics I have chosen to discuss in this paperthe
existence of women who are both Roma and lesbians,
women who have emotional and sexual desires towards
other women, and the issue of sexuality in itself
represent subjects which have been historically taboo,
despite the fact that sexuality is one of the essential
attributes to our very beings. Sexuality is a part of our
personal identity; our sexuality informs our connections,
relationships, our communities, and our entire society.
It is a strong taboo to talk about female sexuality, not

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only within Romani communities but also more broadly
in Serbia. In fact, no matter how developed or
modern Serbian society is considered to be, especially
when compared with other societies, or how evolved,
or less patriarchal, Romani communities are now when
contrasted with those in the past, womens sexuality is
still a subject that no one likes to discuss. Whether
Roma or non-Roma, highly educated or illiterate, as
women we continue to be faced with our sexuality
being oppressed by society, the media, commerce, to
the extent that we ourselves feel uneasy when we talk
about it. There are problems when either the sexuality
of Romani women or the sexuality of those whose
sexual orientation diverges from normative
heterosexuality is in question. For either group
individually, there is a shared experience of pressure to
conform and persistent human rights violations. For
those of us who live at the intersection of gender,
ethnicity, and sexual orientation, these problems are
multiplied. It is especially difficult to be a Romani
lesbian in Serbia for a number of different reasons: not
only does the subject of LGBT rights itself represent a
topic which elicits a number of reactions (ranging from
disregard to violent), but there is also currently a
growing racism against Romani men and women. In
addition, the rigidity of Romani communities is not
supportive of Romani lesbians, as I will discuss below.
Taken together, these factors lead to the complete
negation of our lives.

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The problem that I most want to highlight in this paper
is the role of patriarchy and the impact it has on the
lives of Romani lesbians in particular. While the concept
of patriarchy is commonly discussed in many of the
papers published in Serbia on the subject of rights and
equality for Romani women and men, these papers
often fail to offer a broader critique of social reality, and
the ways in which the current situation within society is
the result of widely accepted patriarchal norms (the
problem of capitalism is left aside although it is equally
important). Topics and problems that we work on
within our activism represent just consequences of
patriarchy as it represents a power hierarchy of one
group of people over the other and the governance of
the father, the king, the priest in male-dominated
societies. Such power relations do not only denote
domination of men over women, but also refer to a
hierarchy of relations between menand this power
hierarchy is evident in nearly every social structure and
society. Dominance, subjugation and exploitation are all
characteristic of modern civilization. White men hold
the power and control over white women; also they
hold power over women and men and women who are
not white. In turn, men of color hold power and control
over women of color (though not over white women).
Patriarchy can also frame the analysis of power
relations between those who possess land, property,
and independent means of income generation towards
those who do not have access to these resources.

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For centuries patriarchythrough laws, religion,
customs and practiceshas been the basis for control
over womens labor and womens bodies (controlling
both womens production and reproduction) and
womens sexuality. In patriarchal societies, sexuality is
the primary weapon used to control women and enable
continued male power and dominance within society.
Control over female sexuality is not specific to Roma
culture. With very few exceptions, patriarchy is present
in virtually every community in the world. Adrianne
Rich, along with many other feminist authors, discusses
the various methods utilized by men to assert control
over womenfrom physical force to control over the
conscience. Rich, quoting Kathleen Gough, outlines
eight characteristics of male power in archaic and
contemporary societies
These eight characteristics
include the denial or imposition of female sexuality,
managing and utilization of womens labor in order to
control womens production, control over and the
taking of children, limiting women physically and
preventing womens free movement, using women as
objects of exchange within male transactions,
hampering womens creativity, and controlling womens
access to social knowledge and cultural achievements. If
we consider only practices such as: punishing women
for loss of virginity outside wedlock, for adultery or for

Adrienne Rich, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,
Kontra, Zagreb 2002. pg. 36, quotes Kathleen Gough, The Origin of
the Family

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lesbian relations; classifying women as either clean or
unclean; disempowering and isolating menstruating
women; denying female sexuality after menopause (Puri
daj); rape; arranged marriage and bride selling;
prostitution; controlling womens reproduction through
limited access to abortion and birth control and forced
sterilization; withholding access to health care; denying
divorced women custody of their children; preventing
women from accessing education; inability to find work;
prohibiting women from leaving the home; reducing
women to the roles of wife, mother and homemaker;
confiscating womens earnings; domestic and intimate
partner violence; and even common social behaviors
such as sexist jokes, we begin to see that we have
created a strikingly accurate depiction of the daily lives
of many Romani women, both throughout history and
As illustrated above, within patriarchal power
structures, women are tightly controlled and strictly
defined as objects in relation to men. Women who act
outside of this relationship experience retribution
through social exclusion and isolation, poverty, and
violence. In many ways, lesbians represent a significant
challenge, and therefore threat, to male control over
women and the entire system of patriarchy. One of the
earliest and most detailed accounts of lesbian existence
can be found in writings of lesbian feminist Adrianne
Rich, who introduced this concept into feminist theory.
The exploration of lesbian existence remains the key to
disclosing the socially compulsory nature of

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heterosexuality. The theory of compulsory
heterosexuality provides a critical aspect missing from
previous descriptions of lesbian lives: not only regarding
the sexual act and choice of partners but also the
understanding of how sexuality relates to all other
aspects of womens social interactions. Lesbian
existence deconstructs common conceptions of family,
intimate partner relationships, parenthood, social
relationships, language, security, and belonging to a
communityall institutions that patriarchy has to offer.
Lesbian existence also means the dislocation women
outside of the bastion of male dominance because it
challenges what it means to belong to a nation, a state,
father, husband, church. As Rich writes: We're out in a
country that has no language no laws, [...] whatever we
do together is pure invention the maps they gave us
were out of date.

The visible existence of Romani lesbian women
challenges the dominant white patriarchal discourse
and it poses a threat to male dominance and control as
embodied within heterosexismthe system under
which we live and which is our reality. Essentially, being
a lesbian means rejecting economic and sexual
dependence on men and being a Romani lesbian is a
subversion of gender roles both within the Romani
community as well as within the majority, non-Romani

Adrienne Rich, Twenty One Love Poems: XIII, in The Dream of a
Common Language (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978)

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community. Romani lesbians create tension within the
social order by not conforming to racist and sexist
stereotypes of Romani women: the Romani woman as
pregnant with many children around her skirt, and with
an abusive husbanda prime example of unequal
gender power relationsor Romani women as highly
sexualized objects (like Esmeralda or Carmen) whose
talents are enticing men as prostitutes or exotic
entertainers, which are the images that many from the
majority non-Roma population are accustomed to.

Though the Romani lesbian community does not yet
have a concrete politically articulated set of demands,
the existence of Romani lesbians, who are located at the
intersection of several marginalized identities bears a
reminder that entire society must take into
consideration the needs and demands of the most
marginalized members among them. Human rights and
liberation from oppression in order to live full lives are
not exclusive privileges for some but must be available
to all. The internal and external social forces acting to
preserve the current status quo are immensely strong
and Romani lesbians face violence, isolation and
oppressive traditional practices. Moreover, Romani

Readers comments to an article online Roma Lesbians live
threefold discrimination. One comment by a reader offers an
example of the kind of hostility Romani Lesbians are met with:
Roma lesbians... Where does this world go??? Full article is
available in Serbian at:
trostruke-diskriminacije-video. (Accessed September 3rd 2013)

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communities serve as both direct and symbolic
oppressors: direct because they strive to preserve the
existing system within each localized Romani
community and symbolic in that the community
structure actually preserves the white male hierarchical
order. The part of Serbian society that is homophobic,
and unfortunately this is the majority, does not have an
especially developed consciousness that LGBT rights
relate to members of other minority groups. In their
effort to simply live their existence or perhaps even
change their position in society, members of minority
groups of both sexes encounter their initial challenges
within their own communities first; their families and
home environment. The demands of Romani women
and men for LGBT rights do not reach majority
community. Therefore, the most visible individuals in
Serbia advocating for LGBT rights are indeed those from
majority populationat least according to their skin
color or ethnic background. This is not because the
demand for LGBT rights is a matter of courage but
because society, in its tendency to constantly produce
enemies, can imagine only one type of diversity at the
It is necessary to explain why I use the term Romani
communities rather than Romani community. I
believe that being a Romani woman or man does not
mean having lived experience identical to other Romani
women or men. Our lives can be similar, certainly, but
our lives are also very different due to many influencing
factors. Moreover, as I have worked on this report, I

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have confirmed my original opinion regarding readiness
for change. I have found that some Romani
communities are more traditional and closed whereas
some are more open to changes and outside influences.
These differences occur as consequences of an intricate
combination which includes social relations, economic
status, and the availability of access to education and
employment as well as the extent to which available
resources are owned by non-Roma. In her text
Understanding Patriarchy
, feminist theorist Suranjita
Ray accounts that, in the Indian context, the
manifestations of patriarchy can be different between
casts and religions, and this observation is relevant to
Roma culture as well. Rays explanation of the varied
manifestations of patriarchy in the Indian context is
similar to the experience of oppression of women
within developed countries as well, but what patriarchy
does have in common everywhere globally is the control
over female sexuality and the influence of class,
ethnicity and religion on female reproduction. The
modes of operation of patriarchal control over womens
sexuality and reproduction have been evolving
throughout history and have become institutionalized
and legitimized through various ideologies, social
practices and systems of family, religion, class,
education, the media, legislation and policy, the state

Suranjita Ray, Understanding Patriarchy, (course material,
University of Dehli, Daulat Ram College Department of Political
Science, Dehli).

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and society. For Romani women, what this means in
terms of their experience with patriarchal oppression is
that it is not the same to live in a Roma settlement or to
live outside the ghetto, in a city or in a village, to be
born in the south or in the north of Serbia, to be
displaced from Kosovo or deported from Western
countries, to come from a family with regular income or
to be born into a family where the adult members are
unemployed. Because of these variables each of us is
faced with a different manifestation of patriarchy,
something I will address further on in the text.
I am well aware that this paper will provoke numerous
critiques, not just from Romani men but also from
Romani women, because I have already witnessed this
phenomenon each time the position or status of
Romani women has been openly discussed within the
community. It is my hope that this time the discussion
will be based on evidence, rather than denials and the
too often heard claims that it is not like that with Roma
at all! Virginia Wolfs has a well-known quote that the
history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is
more interesting perhaps than the story of
emancipation itself.
I cannot think of any reason why a
message should not be publicly sent to the Roma
communityan open invitation for critical reflection
and to change ourselves, as too much self-assurance

Virginia Wolf, A Room of One's Own (London: Oxford University

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and arrogance can never lead to betterment. I also
extend this invitation to the broader society. The
freedom from prejudice is the responsibility of the
entire society. Perhaps our differences can help us
confirm that we are the ones leading the general
liberating struggle but we cannot see this without
looking at a larger picture. As stated by bell hooks:
Individuals fighting to uproot sexism without
supporting struggles to end racism or classism
undermine their own efforts. Individuals combating
uprooting racism and classism and supporting sexist
oppression assist in preserving cultural basis for all
forms of group oppression.

The existence of Romani lesbians is not a specific topic
relevant only to womens groups, Romani womens
groups or even the entire Romani community. It is my
hope that this paper will serve as an inception for
further researching the voices of those silent for too
long, and that it will contribute to an opening of the
subject of Romani lesbian existence, both within and
outside of Serbia, and finally that this paper will serve to
encourage support self-organization of autonomous civil
society and community-based groups in the near future.
In a recent issue of Time magazine there was an
inspiring sentence which read: Yesterdays impossible

bell hooks, From Margin to Centre, Feministika 94, Belgrade,

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now looks like tomorrows inevitable.
LGBT human
rights are not just the priority of the LGBT community,
but they have become a goal that is increasingly gaining
new allies from different areas: Instead, the impetus
has come from disparate forces in seemingly
unconnected realms: courtrooms, yes, but also
hospitals, nurseries, libraries and soundstages.

Similarly, Romani lesbian existence and its visibility
cannot remain as separate issues from the problems
both within and confronting the Roma community, nor
can it be separate from the challenges that are
encountered by non-Romani LGBT individuals in Serbia.
Romani lesbian existence needs to be on the shared
agenda, just as yesterdays impossible is tomorrows
The story of Romani lesbians cannot be written
differently than this: as a Romani lesbian critique of the
patriarchal hierarchy that starts with white men, non
white men, Romani men, white women, Romani women
themselves, and is maintained and perpetuated through
systems of forced heterosexuality and internalized
racism, sexism and homophobia. This issue requires an
investigation that goes beyond statistics and legal

David Von Drehle. How Gay Marriage Won, Time Magazine
Online (28 March, 2013), available at:

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analysis; Romani lesbians are invisible, hidden deep in
reality and especially in theory.
To write responsibly on the subject of Romani lesbians
means to start from the experiences of women, as
women are the real protagonists of their lives. For this
paper I invited Romani lesbians living in different Roma
communities throughout Serbia to talk with me. I also
interviewed activists from mainstream womens
organizations as well as women from, Romani womens
organizations, activists working on Roma issues within
LGBT organizations as well as women from lesbian
organizations. For most of the Romani lesbians I know in
Serbia, it was a difficult decision to meet with me and
talk openly about their life stories. Because fear and
isolation remain deeply rooted in our bodies and many
of us are still unable to express ourselves, there were
some women who I was only able to learn about
through other women. Still, 15 women accepted my
invitation to share their stories and be involved in this
research, knowing that the text will be published by the
European Roma Rights Centre, understand that this
means that Romani women and men activists will be
able to have an insight into parts of their stories. The
bravery of these 15 Romani lesbians was followed by
the readiness of ten men and women, Romani activists
who spoke to me about their views on lesbian existence
and the views of Roma communities and the ongoing
violations of their human rights. In addition, two lesbian
human rights organizations also contributed to my
research: Labris, based in Belgrade, and the Novi Sad

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Lesbian Organization and I also interviewed the
coordinator of the project Multiple Discrimination
LBGTIQ Roma men and women, (the group for support,
research and sensitization of other non-governmental
organizations and state institutions). The project was
implemented during 2008-09 within the Belgrade-based
NGO, Gayten LGBT.
I conducted all interviews included in this research
between November 2012 and April 2013 in several
Serbian cites.
The paper before you contains voices of women I have
talked with, women whose voices have for too long
been unspoken and unheard. The women who I was
able to interview here, as well as those who remained
silent, all irreversibly inspired me to continue with much
more analysis and action. The fact that I believe that the
personal is political has brought me the courage to
share my own personal experience as a Romani lesbian.
It is not my intention to present all possible aspects of
the lives of Romani lesbians, nor is it my intention to
speak on behalf of all Romani lesbians. Therefore, it is
important to bear in mind that each of us comes from
different context and have different experiences.
Aside from the authentic personal stories, it was
important to point out that, in the example of Serbia,
there is a fundamental lack of recognition of multiple
discrimination, both in law and in practice, and this has
serious consequences for those who suffer from

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multiple forms of discrimination. All data given in this
paper are relevant to the period concluding 2012.
As far as I know, this study is the first attempt at
researching Romani lesbian existence, not only in Serbia
but in other countries as well. I would like to be wrong
about this, and have the opportunity to read other
accounts, detailing Romani lesbian existence and
exploring the similarities, differences and richness of
our experiences, but so far, in my research, I have not
found any such resources. The text in front of you
contains the stories of the brave women with whom I
spoke; you are the audience for the unspoken voices
belonging to these women who speak out in front of

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II Reminder of the present reality Setting the
context in Serbia

Discrimination based on gender, race/ethnicity, and
sexual orientation is a broad topic, and it cannot be
entirely covered by this paper. However, as I am dealing
with a system which includes all of these properties, let
me first provide some basic illustrations, which shed
light on key insights into the positions of women, of
Roma, and of LGBT people living in Serbia, which are
important to understand when documenting the
multiple problems Romani lesbians face.
The position of women
Discrimination against women is one of the most wide
spread forms of discrimination in Serbia. A key reason
for this is the deeply rooted traditional and patriarchal
stereotypes about gender family roles of men and
women within the family and the broader community.
Women hold less favorable positions in all spheres of
social life when compared to those of men.

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Relevant bodies report
that some areas of
discrimination against women which are especially
concerning include a lack of womens participation in
decision making, participation in the economy and in
the education system, gender based violence and
violence against women, and gender inequality in the
media (both in manner of presenting women in the
media and in holding leading positions), etc. Although
official state institutions have conducted a few serious
studies on discrimination against women in Serbia, data
from the Victimology Society of Serbia, a womens
organization based in Belgrade, shows that one in three
women in Serbia are victims of physical violence (30.6%)
and that almost half of all Serbian women have
experienced psychological violence (46.1%). One in four
women has at least once in their lifetime experienced
physical violence, yet, physical domestic violence is
reported to police only in 16.5% of domestic violence

Office of the Equality Commissioner, Regular Annual Report for
2011, March 2012,
Vesna Nikolid-Ristanovid, Porodino nasilje u Srbiji, (Family
Violence in Serbia), Belgrade, 2002

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Violence against Romani women in families and
For Romani women, the data on gender based violence
evidences an even greater problem. Research
conducted by Womens Space, an organization based in
Ni, focused on the fact that 100% of women
interviewed said that they had experienced in the past,
and at the time of the interviews continued to
encounter physical violence and 94% of participants
stated that they were familiar with physical violence.
The remaining 6% of this group responded that they
have never experienced situations of physical violence,
but reported that their husbands would sometimes as
a form of joke slap them in the face, though these
respondents were not able to say that this was violence.
Of those who stated that they were currently suffering
physical violence, 98% answered affirmatively when
asked whether the perpetrators were their husbands.
The most common reasons for violence, according to
the interviewees, are jealousy and alcoholism of their
spouses. Every fourth woman reported to have suffered
physical violence from her father-in-law while as many
as 45% reported that they had experienced psycho-
physical violence at the hands of their mothers-in-law.
15% of respondents indicated that other perpetrators of
violence within the family included brothers- and
sisters-in-law, and one participant even mentioned her
husbands grandfather as a perpetrator of violence.
Although a small number of women reported to have
experienced violence before they were married, 90% of

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interviewed stated that their spouses beat their children
and the same percentage reported that their mothers
also suffered violence from their spouses, thus giving us
reason to conclude that the interviewees experienced
violence throughout their childhoods.

Discrimination and violence and against Roma
According to a 2002
study sponsored by the Serbian
Ethnicity Research Centre, there were 593 Roma
settlements in Serbia, each with a minimum of fifteen or
more families.
The majority of Roma settlements are
located in Belgrade, Central Serbia, Vojvodina and
Southern Serbia.
As of 2002, 43.5% of all settlements

Vera Kurtid, Violence against Women: Report on Roma Women
Human Rights Violations, from a manual for working with women
traumatized by male violence by the Autonomous Womens
Centre, Belgrade (2008)
Unfortunately, there are no more recent studies providing
updated information on these statistics. This represents a
significant gap in the data.
Bozidar Jaksic, PhD and Goran Basic, LLD, Roma settlements,
living conditions and the possibility for integration of Roma in
Serbia, Belgrade, 30 December 2002; Possibility for integration of
the Roma in Serbia, results of the social research, Belgrade, 30
December 2002.
United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Human
Development Report Serbia 2008: Regional cooperation, Belgrade,
2008, available at: (accessed:
15 November 2011), pg. 136

25 | D u v l j a r k e

were classified as either unhygienic or slums by UNDP.

Most of these settlements are segregated and located
on the outskirts of larger cities, some even being
physically isolated by fences.
Houses are often built
with scrap materials, with neither sufficient protection
from the elements nor access to the electricity network.
More than a quarter of settlements remain bereft of
any water supply and only one third has paved roads.

Apart from substandard living conditions, forced
evictions remain an on-going problem
disproportionately affecting Roma communities
throughout Serbia. The vast majority of evictions either
carried out or imminent occurred in Belgrade.
confirmed by the Regional Centre for Minorities,
municipal authorities in Belgrade city forcibly evict
many Romani men and women from their homes
located in informal Roma settlements. Roma lose their
homes and often all of their property, along with the
ability to work for survival. They are never compensated

Praxis, et al. Information Submitted to the Committee on the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination on the occasion of Initial
Periodic Report of Serbia, 78
Session, (Belgrade: February 2011),
available at:
(accessed: 15 November 2011), pg. 5
Ibid., pg. 16
European Roma Rights Centre, Serbia: EU Enlargement
Programme, (Budapest: May 2012), 3, available at:

26 | D u v l j a r k e

for these losses. Displaced Roma are often forcibly
placed into settlements with shipping containers as
housing. The Belgrade-based organization, Praxis in
November 2012 filed a complaint on behalf of the
Coalition against Discrimination with the Commissioner
for Equality Protection because of the discriminatory
legal regime which was established within the container
This legal regime applies only to the
Roma, who were displaced after Belgrades forced
evictions of informal settlements.

The Praxis report states that: City government prescribed that in
case Roma who live in the container settlements do not adopt
mannerisms towards institutional representatives of the city of
Belgrade, and do not show active relation towards city efforts to
socialize individuals and their families or even yet receive guests
within the containers they live in, they can be forcefully evicted
again. These discriminatory legislations assisted City Government
to evict 11 families with the total of 44 members. Evictions and
resettlement along with other human rights violations have been
detailed in numerous reports on progress under the Platform for
the Right to Adequate Housing by organizations including: Praxis,
Regional Minority Centre, CHRIS, NSHC, YUCOM, Minority Rights
Centre and Amnesty International; See also: Amnesty International,
Home is more than a roof over your head, (London: Amnesty
International, 2011), available at:
2.pdf; and Amnesty International, After Belvil Serbia needs new
laws against forced eviction, (London: Amnesty International,
2012), available at:

27 | D u v l j a r k e

Attempts to resettle Roma often cause resistance
among the local majority populations.
In 2012 there
were riots in the Belgrade suburb of Resnik after city
officials decided to relocate Roma from the Belvil
settlement. Ironically, these anti-Roma riots happened
on April 8th, the International Day of Roma. One report
recounts that 13 policemen were injured along with two
other men, and 20 individuals were charged with
Over the last four years, the European Roma Rights
Centre has been monitoring the increase in forced
evictions of Roma in Serbia. Since 2009, the ERRC and
several different local NGOs organizing around the
Platform for the Right to Adequate Housing have
registered 18 forced evictions in Belgrade alone,
affecting over 650 Romani families numbering more
than 2,700 individuals.
Almost all reported instances of
forced evictions have been marked by the same human
rights violations, notably the failure to provide evictees
with adequate (or indeed any) alternative housing or

EuActiv rs, Poloaj Roma i dalje teak u Srbiji (Position of Roma
population in Serbia is still difficult), (Serbia: 9 April 2012), available
Praxis, et al., Platform for Realization of the Right to Adequate
Housing, press release, 26 December 2012, available at:

28 | D u v l j a r k e

accommodation, despite the fact that Serbia has
undertaken to do so under international law.

Moreover, authorities failed to consult with affected
communities at any stage, and failed to provide due
process or compensation.

Romani communities in Serbia do not suffer just from
discriminatory policies and actions on the part of state
and municipal authorities, but there is an upwards trend
of anti-Roma sentiment growing throughout the
population, and individual Roma (including both settled
Roma and Roma IDPs) are subjects of attack. According
to an ERRC report: Hate speech and violence against
Roma are on-going problems in Serbia [...] Such violence
is not limited to any geographic area, but prevalent
throughout the country [...] Attacks have occurred in
both public and private settings, by individual
perpetrators and groups, by private entities and
policemen. Victims are also diverse in character,
including women, children, men, or entire communities,
targeted indiscriminately.

The gravity of the occurrence of hate crimes is often
diminished, and thereby aggravated, by a refusal on the
part of law enforcement and/or judicial bodies to

European Roma Rights Centre, Serbia: EU Enlargement
Programme, (Budapest: May 2012), 3-4, available at:

29 | D u v l j a r k e

acknowledge and prosecute them as such. The situation
as it stands constitutes an environment of impunity for
anti-Roma hate crimes. The Commissioner for Equality
Protection has noted that very frequently Roma are
targeted in racially-motivated attacks which are often
neither investigated nor punished properly.
monitors Serbian media and NGO reports for instances
of violence against Roma in Serbia. Since 2008, the ERRC
has registered 24 reports of violence against Roma,
including one incident involving a Molotov cocktail.
Anti-Roma violence also takes place in the aftermath of
forced evictions. While this does not constitute a
comprehensive review of all attacks, it highlights some
of the key incidents involving Roma.
Roma access to education and employment
The educational situation of Romani children is
characterized by exclusion, low enrolment rates, high
dropout rates and the disproportionate placement of
Romani students into special schools and classes
offering substandard education.
Inclusive education is

Office of the Equality Commissioner, Regular Annual Report for
2011, March 2012,
ERRC and Minority Rights Centre, Parallel Report by the European
Roma Rights Centre and Minority Rights Centre Concerning Serbia,
(Budapest: ERRC and Minority Rights Centre, 16 July 2012,) 3,
available at:

30 | D u v l j a r k e

still not fully enforced, and too many Roma children are
still being enrolled in special schools.
However, the
number of Romani children enrolled into these special
schools has decreased from 8% to 6% in recent years.

Preliminary data on the educational attainment of
Roma from the 2011 population census indicates that
more than 15% of all Roma in Serbia above the age of
10 are illiterate
compared to the national average
which is below 2%.
69% of all illiterate Roma are
women and 34.2% of Roma have not completed primary
education, compared to 11% of the overall population.
European Commission, Serbia 2012 Progress Report, (Brussels:
European Commission, October 2012) available at:
Official Gazette of Republic of Serbia, Strategija razvoja
obrazovanja u Srbiji do 2020. godine, (Belgrade: Official Gazette of
Republic of Serbia, Strategy for developing education in Serbia to
2010, accessed November 9
2012), No. 107/2012, 29, available at:
Radio Beograd 1, Romano Them: interview with Mrs Snezana
Lakcevic, Head of the Census Department, Statistical Office of the
Republic of Serbia, (Belgrade: Radio Beograd 1, 07 February 2013),
available at:
Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, Educational
Attainment, Literacy and Compute Literacy data by municipalities
and cities, (Belgrade: 2013), 102, available at:

31 | D u v l j a r k e

The Romani population, and especially Romani women,
are the most discriminated against in the labor market.

A 2011 report from the European Commission against
Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) highlights that Roma in
Serbia face low economic activity and there is almost
total exclusion of Roma from the public sector, which
indicates a pattern of discrimination against Roma.
low educational attainments among the Roma are
reflected in low Roma employment rates, with only one
in five Roma in Serbia is working. The employment gap
between Roma and the majority population of working
age is 29 percentage points. The low education levels
are also reflected in much lower earnings. A World Bank
study shows that the average net monthly income of an
employed Roma is 48% less than the income of a
member of the majority population.

Serbia 2012 Progress Report, European Commission, Brussels,
October 2012 , available at
European Commission against Racism and Intolerance Secretariat,
ECRI report on Serbia (fourth monitoring cycle), 31.5.2011, p. 18,
available at:
World Bank, Economic Costs of Roma Exclusion, (Washington D.C.:
World Bank Europe and Central Asia, April 2010), available at:
c_Costs_Roma_Exclusion_Note_Final.pdf; for comparison: in
Bulgaria the average monthly income is 31% less; in Romania, 55%
and 58% in Czech Republic.

32 | D u v l j a r k e

Discrimination and violence against LGBT citizens
The fact that LGBT rights are usually only discussed in
Serbia when it is time to organize annual Pride Parade
provides a clear picture of the state of LGBT human
rights and their right to public assembly and visibility. In
Serbia, as opposed to other countries in the region, the
organization of such a manifestation of pride was only
planned and attempted for the first time in Belgrade in
2001. Organizers believed that after the democratic
changes in Serbia it would be possible to carry out this
public demonstration that would clearly show that
there were indeed LGBT individuals in Serbia. However,
the initial event ended before it actually began.
Participants were beaten by right-wing groups, football
fans, members of cleric-fascist groups and at least one
priest of Serbian Orthodox Church (it is possible that
there other priests present but without their robes). The
police reaction was inadequate and there is video
footage available at the Internet
of the police standing
passively by and observing attacks on the Parade
participants (there were also several attacks on the
policemen as well). A number of Pride Parade
participants were injured, but several passers-by who
the attackers mistook as LGBT were also hurt. Neither
government nor state officials have issued a formal
statement regarding this event.


33 | D u v l j a r k e

Subsequent Pride marches have been planned and
canceled both in 2004 and 2009. The Pride Parade held
on October 10th 2010 was accompanied by extreme
rioting among right-wing and cleric-fascist groups, who
were attempting to enter a protective circle, formed by
police around the Pride Parade participants. There were
about 1,000 Pride participants with five times as many
police officers securing the event. The result was a war
that broke out in the streets of Belgrade, which lasted
for five hours, and which saw 141 injured and 207
For the next two years the authorities
prohibited Pride Parade, canceling planned events just
moments before they were scheduled to begin. Any
announcement of plans for a Pride march is always
followed by hate-filled statements by nationalist groups
and is accompanied by an increase of violence against
LGBT individuals. Violence against individuals simply
perceived as LGBT also goes up.
A 2012 report by the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) on the
condition of LGBT human rights in Serbia
numerous cases of attempted and actual physical
attacks on LGBT individuals. These attacks made up
about 70% of reported hate crimes in 2012, with the
other 30% being threats and intimidation, hate speech

Gay Straight Alliance, Annual report on the condition of human
rights of LBGT in Serbia 2012, (Belgrade: Gay Straight Alliance,

34 | D u v l j a r k e

and discrimination. The Alliance reported 14 physical
attacks and four threats on the basis of real or assumed
sexual orientation or gender identity. The most notable
and brutal case within this report is the one of V.M., a
25 year-old gay man who was beaten by a group of men
near a Belgrade gay club in September 2012. The
attackers most likely used a butchers hammer as the
weapon in this attack and V.M. sustained severe bodily
injuries as a result. Because cases of violence against
LBGT are most often left unreported to state institutions
and even to LGBT organizations, this report notes that
in 2012 a slight increase in the number of cases
reported to the police by victims. However, due to an
extreme lack of trust that LGBT people have in the
police and judicial system, their readiness to report
attacks and seek prosecution of offenders is minimal.
During 2012 out of the total number of actual and
attempted physical attacks on LGBT people reported to
GSA only about 70% were reported to the police and/or
further pursued by legal or judicial institutions
overseeing hate crimes.
In November, 2012, the office of the Commissioner for
the Protection of Equality together with the non-
governmental organization CESID (Centre for Free
Elections and Democracy) conducted a joint study
entitled Citizens' Attitudes on Discrimination in

35 | D u v l j a r k e

which report polled a representative sample of
1,196 individuals over 15 years of age in Serbia, part of
ongoing efforts aimed at monitoring citizens attitudes
about discrimination, the degree of existing
(in)tolerance and prejudice, and the level of social and
ethnic separation amongst some social groups. 30.2% of
interviewees stated that it would bother them to have
an LGBT individual as a neighbor, 32.5% responded that
they did not wish to have an LGBT colleague while
having an LGBT boss would be undesirable to 40.6% of
respondents. An elected official who is LGBT would be
unwelcome by 48.4%, and 46.2% even replied that they
would not want an LGBT friend. 58.8% did not want
LGBT people to be working with preschool children, and
finally a full 79.5% of participants would not want LGBT
individuals in their families. This is a notable increase
over the responses to the same question from the 2009
study, where 69% said that they would not want LGBT
family members.

Commissioner for Equality Protection and CESID, Report On
Public Opinion Research "Citizens' Attitudes on Discrimination in
Serbia", Belgrade, 2012
Ibid., pg. 31

36 | D u v l j a r k e

Violence as a mechanism for preserving homophobia
and patriarchy
The Belgrade-based lesbian human rights organization
Labris indicates that violence against lesbians and the
fear it produces represent key mechanisms for
preserving the patriarchal and homophobic system that
persists today. The data presented within their study
entitled Living between violence and subcultural ghetto:
LGBTTIQ individuals and their daily lives in Serbia
reveal that as many as 90% of the men and women
interviewed stated that same-sex orientation, or any
behavior that deviates from the heterosexual matrix,
produces a violent response within the majority
The study illustrates that many of those
interviewed have witnessed various forms of violence
(emotional and physical violence, existential insecurity)
which they have either personally or indirectly
experienced. Participants also witness the immediate
consequences of violent episodes survived by their

Isidora Jarid, LGBTTIQ osobe i njihova svakodnevnica u Srbiji
(LGBTTIQ individuals and their everyday lives in Serbia),
Antropologija (Anthropology) 11, sv. 2, (Belgrade: 2011). This work
originated within the scientific research project: Challenges of the
new social integration in Serbia: concepts and actors, Institute for
sociological research of the Faculty of Philosophy, Belgrade; field
work was done with the organizational and financial support of
Labris Lesbian human rights organization.
Ibid., pp. 141-142

37 | D u v l j a r k e

friends, acquaintances and partners.
However, all
attest that none of those interviewed who experienced
violence went to the police because they did not believe
that reporting these incidents would make any
The analysis this study indicates that for all of those
interviewed, their awareness of their own gender
identity, sexual orientation remains inseparable from
their awareness of violent threats or from the very
experience of violence. The violence induced by cultural
stereotypes and adopted within the process of
socialization becomes experienced as one that is
impossible to change or avoid and that potential or real
perpetrators are not unknown individuals, football fans
or persons with psychological problems but rather their
family members, friends, coworkers, members of the
same subcultural community, etc.

The Novi Sad Lesbian Organization (NLO) counseling for
lesbians notes numerous experiences both with
violence and fear of possible violence that inflect
attitudes and lesbian behavior. Judging by the research

Ibid., p. 142 The sample of total 183 individuals, 86 of them, or
46.9%, have personally experienced violence. 17 have experienced
both physical and psychological violence, 9.29% of the total sample.
Out of this 85% have experienced both psychological and physical
violence, and among those who experienced psychological violence
19.78% also experienced physical violence.
Ibid., p. 155

38 | D u v l j a r k e

findings about the violence against LGBTTIQ individuals
fear from homophobic reactions in Serbia represents a
limiting factor in other social situations.
As many as
56.3% of NLOs clients agree that the high level of
homophobia within Serbian society influences the
quality of same-sex relationships. The conclusion is that
our environment produces constant fear in order to
hold LGBTTIQ individuals within the position of lesser
power and under control.

Ibid. p. 150 The percentages of individuals who responded that
they have come out to family members illustrate the current social
context. In answering the question about persons to whom they
revealed their sexual orientation, the interviewees exhibited the
high degrees of mistrust LGBTTIQ individuals commonly feel
towards other people in their environment. Only 26.8% of those
interviewed have told their fathers, 49.7% their mothers, 26.8%
brothers and 31.7% their sisters. Grandparents are aware of the
interviewed sexual orientation in only 13.1%, whereas children if
the interviewees have them know in just 6% of reported
instances. Extended family members and others in the community
further illustrate this: Responses show that just 21.3% of cousins,
20.2% of extended family, and just 29.5% of other individuals from
the immediate environment are made aware of the interviewees
sexual orientation. More than half of those interviewed chose not
to speak about their own sexual orientation with people from their
immediate environments.
Tijana Popivoda, Specifinosti u pruanju podrke lezbejkama
koje su preivele nasilje (Specificities in providing support to
lesbians who survived violence), The Manual for Counseling and
Psychotherapy Work for individuals of different sexual orientation
than heterosexual, Labris, Belgrade, 2012.

39 | D u v l j a r k e

Roma, LGBT, and the Law
Serbia has signed and ratified numerous international
for the protection of human rights and
womens rights, amongst which perhaps the most
important is the Convention on the Elimination of all
Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Domestic legislation also includes prohibition of
discrimination; Article 21 of the Serbian Constitution
prohibits discrimination, although there are no explicit
definitions of discrimination and no recognition of
potential discrimination on the basis of gender identity
or sexual orientation.
Under the second part of the
Constitution, which refers specifically to human, and
minority rights and liberties, Article 49 explicitly
prohibits inciting or promoting hatred and intolerance
based on racial, national, religious or other difference.
The most important act for combating discrimination in
Serbia is the Law on prohibiting discrimination which
was adopted by the Serbian Parliament in 2009.
Adoption of the law was met with criticism and

As a legal successor of former Yugoslavia (SFRJ), Federal Republic
of Yugoslavia and Union of Serbia and Montenegro, the Republic of
Serbia remains a party to previously ratified international
Article 21 of the Serbian Constitution states: All direct or indirect
discrimination based on any grounds, particularly on race, sex,
national origin, social origin, birth, religion, political or other
opinion, property status, culture, language, age, mental or physical
disability shall be prohibited.

40 | D u v l j a r k e

obstructions coming from conservative and ultra-
conservative forces, such as right-wing political parties,
the Serbian Orthodox Church, a number of football fan
clubs as well as pro-fascist groups. The fact that it took
just one law guaranteeing human rights and liberties to
create such shock and division in Serbian society is an
indicator on the state of democracy and human rights
here. The most controversial piece of the law was
Article 17, which covers discrimination based on sexual
identity and sexual orientation, and only after several
interventions and compromises was this law finally
adopted and is now in force.
With this law special independent body was set up the
Commissioner for Equality Protection which serves to
ensure successful prevention, prohibition and
combating of all forms of discrimination. With the
creation of the office of the Commissioner, Serbia has
taken a step towards fulfilling its international
obligations and living up to international standards in
the area of combating racism and racial discrimination.
The European Commission Progress Report states that
several issues remain to be addressed, however, such
are the fact that Roma continue to be the most
vulnerable minority community and are the target of
verbal and physical harassment from ordinary citizens,
police brutality and societal discrimination. Similarly,

41 | D u v l j a r k e

LGBT people, national and ethnic minorities and
disabled people still face discrimination in Serbia.

In its regular annual report for 2012,
the Commissioner
for Equality Protection stated that they had received a
total of 433 complaints wherein just one personal
characteristic was given as the basis for the complaint
while in only 32 cases the complaint cited more than
one personal characteristic as the basis for
discrimination. Since its founding, a significant number
of the complaints made to the Commissioner on the
basis of national background relate to Roma.
large number of these complaints can lead to a
conclusion that members of national minorities feel
discriminated against almost in all spheres of social
relations, especially when dealing with the state
authorities. The fact that individuals filing complaints

Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index (BTI), BTI 2012:
Serbia Country Report, (Gtersloh:Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2012)
available at:
The report is available in its entirety at:
The Commissioner for Equality report for 2012 states: There
were most complaints on the basis of belonging to the Roma
national minority (31), whereas there were significantly less
complaints on the basis of belonging to other national minority
Albanian (4), Macedonian (4), Bosnian (3), Croatian (3) and
Hungarian (3).

42 | D u v l j a r k e

are beginning to include multiple grievances indicates a
step toward necessitating the recognition of multiple
discrimination on the part of the state. Although still
relatively new, the Equality Protection Commissioner
has begun to be utilized more frequently, however, as
of yet there have been no cases filed to this institution
that cite multiple discrimination from Romani men or
women. To date, there have been no cases where the
complainants suggest other personal characteristics
alongside sexual orientation, as the basis for the
complaint. In other words, two of the most marginalized
and discriminated against populations, Roma and LGBT,
have yet to report discrimination based on multiple and
intersecting aspects of their identities.
In accordance with the Law on personal data protection,
under the current regulations governing the office of
the Commissioner, the forms used by individuals filing a
complaint do not collect data about national or ethnic
background. Therefore the exact number of complaints
relating directly to discrimination on the basis of
national background, i.e. race or ethnicity remains
One of the basic roles of the Commissioners office is to
provide opinions and recommendations for procedures,
and even initiating court cases, after discrimination
complaint is submitted. However, the Commissioners
office states that there should never be more than one
personal characteristic as basis of a discrimination
complaint, as providing more than one personal

43 | D u v l j a r k e

characteristic would create unclear base for
Thus, system remains permanently blind to multiple

44 | D u v l j a r k e

45 | D u v l j a r k e

III Witnessing real life Multiple

The challenge is that the specific nature of violence
against lesbians and against Romani women is that it is
not recognized in a holistic manner, since the state has
no official stance on or approach to, including relevant
institutions, to address issues of violence and
discrimination at the intersection of gender,
race/ethnicity, class and sexual orientation (for
example). Official recognition of multiple discrimination
is an important plank in the platforms for both Roma
inclusion and gender equality, however, because
implementation of these platforms is sorely lacking,
therefore the intersection of two or more aspects on
identity is not taken into consideration when addressing
violence and discrimination.
As a result, Romani

Due to the nature of this paper, I cite only the Law on Gender
Equality, The National Strategy for Women Position and Gender
Equality Improvement, The Strategy for Roma Position

46 | D u v l j a r k e

lesbians remain completely invisible to society and to
social and political institutions. Sadly, Romani lesbian
existence is either ignored, or becomes the basis for
To illustrate this point, I have included the story of a
young woman facing violence and discrimination based
on gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Her
story is not contained within official documents,
because no one has ever asked her about it before.
I have been living with K. for 4 years and she is
my family. I came to Belgrade because my father
wanted to marry me off, and there was much
violence and I could not stand it anymore. I
stayed with my cousins for a while and then I
met K. and we started living together.
The two of us lived in a Roma settlement and we
knew it had been scheduled to be demolished,

Improvement in Serbia and The Action Plan for implementation of
the Strategy for the Improvement of Roma Status in Serbia. Each of
these documents provide analysis for recognizing women from
marginalized social groups and the Action Plan for Roma Position
Improvement in Serbia contains a special section regarding Romani
women. What is important is the lack of implementation of these
policies. See: Woman Space, Achieving Roma women human rights
in Serbia: Analysis of existing institutional measures
implementation, 2012, available at:

47 | D u v l j a r k e

but we had no jobs and no place to go to. One
day when we returned home the settlement had
been torn down. No one offered us
accommodation; we were homeless with all that
we had destroyed. Now we must rent a room in
another house also scheduled for demolition
we pay the rent and do not know when they will
come and tear this down either. I had a
temporary Belgrade residence in order to be able
to have health insuranceunder the law Roma
can have this benefit. [The authorities] told me I
have no right to housing. At the Centre for Social
Work they wondered how K. and I were one
family and told us only real families could receive
housing and they would not put us together even
if we were given a container. She is from
Belgrade, that is where she was born and her
parents also do not own a home, and I was told I
should return where I had come from, to my
parents, and perhaps there seek shelter from the
People think they have the right to make
decisions about my life. The social worker I
contacted when I fled from my father was
interested in my case but then she started saying
that I must be a prostitute since I do not live with
my parents or cousins. On several occasions she
talked to me about my reasons for living with K.
and asked me why I was like that. But this is my
private life.

48 | D u v l j a r k e

After being evicted we gave an interview to a
non-governmental organization and our stories
were on the Internet. [Because of this] my
Belgrade cousins attacked me in the market
place telling me I was a shame for them for
being with K. Some people that we know told us:
You should not bring shame to us, we are Roma
and this is not something that we ever do! And
on the Internet we saw terrible comments about
our story online telling us to get the fuck out of
Serbia. We live believing that we can go out on
the street tomorrow and somebody may kill us.

Apart from the struggles they encounter in their
personal lives, many Romani women also struggle to
make society better, face the fact that they are seen as
different and therefore are faced with numerous
obstacles and threats. As part of women and peace
movement in Serbia, Romani women contribute to
various social processes. An illustration of what it means
for them, and in particular, the challenges they must
overcome, when Romani women fight for justice and
equality for all, is illustrated by the statement below
provided by one of these activists:
It is our skin where we know and feel racism, we
know what it is like not to be safe. We support
Pride since we believe everybody has the right to

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Belgrade, November 2012

49 | D u v l j a r k e

choose. It is not the same when some of us from
the association came to Belgrade to be part of
the Pride march than when someone else came.
We could not enter the Pride march because
police blocked all entrances to the Pride parade.
Riots started to break out. We did not feel safe,
not just because someone could know where we
were going but because it was visible we were
Romani women. It was horrible for us to be in
the streets on that day.

Organizations that dared to exist
Discrimination runs much deeper than the system can
prohibit through its existing laws and protection
mechanisms and it is important to note that this is not
all, and therefore efforts to confront discrimination
must also be broader. Many Serbian lesbians and
Romani women join or create independent womens
organizations and although there is not a separate
Romani lesbian group in Serbia, there are a few notable
groups which have recognized the intersecting burdens
of racism, misogyny and homophobia, and have dared
to confront and combat these issues. These
organizations and groups aim to support lesbians and
work on issues relevant for lesbian existence is within

Interview with a Romani woman activist, South Banat, November

50 | D u v l j a r k e

their primary goals. Therefore, they represent a
progressive part within each movement they fall into.

Rromnjako Ilo (Roma Heart) based in Zrenjanin, works in
the South Banat province of Vojvodina and has been
part of the Roma Women Network of Banat since 2007.
This Network, founded in 2000, is led by Novi Becej
Roma Association, which is also a womens and feminist
association primarily dealing with combating male
violence against women and providing emergency
hotline services in the languages of ethnic and national
minorities. The Network/Rromnjako Ilo conducts
workshops in Novi Becej and Zrenjanin. The workshop
topics relate to empowering women of non-
heterosexual sexual orientations. As a result of these
activities there are organized groups of women in these
municipalities who have come out with their sexual
orientation to other women in their organization.
Beginning in 2008, Gayten LGBT, an organization from
Belgrade, implemented a three-year project entitled
Multiple Discrimination: LGBTIQ and Romani men and
women which was a support group that worked on
conducting research and raising awareness among other
NGOs and state institutions. The project gathered
Romani homosexuals and bisexuals as well as

There is often a tendency to classify people into certain, limited
categories and therefore it is often easiest to categorize one group
as Roma, women or LGBT. These organizations are explicit that
they represent all of these categories, and this sets them apart.

51 | D u v l j a r k e

transgender individuals. Women did not attend joint
meetings, but instead, the project coordinator had
periodical meetings with women outside organizations
premises since the women expressed that they would
feel more comfortable with this arrangement. According
to the women, they believed there was less of a chance
that someone might see them entering the building
where Gayten is located (there are no visible signs or
any other information for Gayten LGBT on this building).
Womens Space, founded in 1997, is an organization
which works to empower women from socially
marginalized groups, primarily Romani women. Women
Space is based in Ni but covers the area of South Serbia
and also has national outreach through cooperation
with sister organizations from the Roma Women
Network. It is one of the first organizations to discuss
the subject of male violence against women within the
Roma community as well as the topic of forced marriage
and bride sale, in addition to racism and authorities'
disregard of the anti-fascist heritage in our country.
Women Space was the first organization to organize the
LGBT community in Ni and has participated in the work
of other organizations that have since followed.
The personal stories, which form the basis of this paper,
were collected with women who are convened by the
aforementioned groups. These organizations currently
represent, both metaphorically and literally, the only
space where Romani lesbians state they can feel safe as
they share their stories.

52 | D u v l j a r k e

Although, within this patriarchal environment it is men
who have more agency and are the first to conquer the
public space in Serbia, it was the women who first spoke
about sexual identities other than heterosexuality. In
the three Serbian cities where there are initiatives to
work with Romani lesbians i.e. LGBT Romani women
and men, women were the ones who initiated, led and
are still leading this work. Romani lesbians are part of
women, feminist and Roma organizations. The fact that
they are invisible or not recognized does not mean they
are not present in the field or are not working in other
places. Therefore it is important that we create new
groups which will be founded by Romani lesbians and
which will work with Romani lesbians as they open the
path of liberty for all.

53 | D u v l j a r k e

IV The reality of Romani lesbian existence

Social differences between homosexuality and
Between 1959 and 1974, the Criminal Code of
Yugoslavia (SFRY) criminalized homosexuality and held
that homosexual acts (specifically male homosexual
acts), was punishable by imprisonment of up to one
year. After the changes introduced into the Constitution
in 1974 and legal reforms that included the transfer of
jurisdiction to respective republics and provinces the
common Criminal Code of SFRY was nullified. The
Autonomous Province of Vojvodina decriminalized
homosexuality in 1978 but when in 1990 the Provinces
lost their power to adopt legislation, homosexuality was
reintroduced into Criminal Code at the national level
within the Republic of Serbia. The age of consent for
same-sex couples was set at 18 years whereas for
heterosexual couples it was 14, however, this
discrepancy was eliminated on January 1st 2006 with

54 | D u v l j a r k e

the age of consent set to 14 years of age regardless of
sexual orientation.
In order to understand sexual orientations other than
heterosexuality, it is first necessary to explore the ways
that the different experiences of women and men
manifest in non-heterosexual existences. Within the
dominant political and social discourse, male
homosexuality, just as lesbianism, is considered a threat
to the status quo as it usurps the existing system of sex
relations and subverts conventional ideas of manhood
and womanhood. Lesbianism questions male-centered
(or andocentric) heterosexuality, and challenges
traditional gender roles and male superiority.
Historically, it has been assumed that the sole purpose
of female sexuality has been to serve and satisfy male
sexuality, and therefore even lesbian sexuality
is often
regarded as directed for male pleasure, or as less
relevant and fundamentally changeable. Adrienne Rich
wrote that even the possibility of lesbianism is deemed
invisible as lesbianism negates male dominance over
and physical, economic and emotional access to women
while male homosexuality has either been desexualized
or categorized as abnormal or sexually deviant
behavior, as opposed to normal heterosexual

For example porn movies that contain scenes of lesbian
intercourse solely for male consumption.

55 | D u v l j a r k e

In one of the rare accounts of lesbian existence from the
region, Marija Blizanac provides another illustration of
difference between the lives of gays and lesbians: It is
suspicious if two men want to rent a flat together,
whereas two girls in the same situation are deemed as
normal, they are just friends.
As the author explains,
these kinds of statements or practices do not mean that
the predominant heterosexual and intolerant society
sees women as better, chaster, more reliable...but
rather depict the condition within the society where
male homosexuality is considered to be real and female
homosexuality is not.

The next logical question is then to ask whether there is
a difference between Romani communities acceptance
of gay men and lesbians. In order to provide an answer I
have talked to Romani men and women from Romani
communities in Belgrade, Nis and Novi Becej.
For the
most part, their responses to this question were similar,
and they agreed that Romani communities, to a certain
degree show more tolerance towards homosexuality
than is the case in majority communities, however this

Marija Blizanac, Glas za razliitost meu razliitima, (Voice for
diversity among the diverse) Puls Demokratije, available at:
Interviews were conducted with a total of 10 individuals, some of
whom are activists. Due to the sensitivity of this topic, their names
will not be given here.

56 | D u v l j a r k e

does not assume full tolerance. Visibility of gay men
existence in relation to the visibility of lesbian existence
is important for the purpose of this paper as it can be
indicative of higher level of tolerance. They spoke of
knowing gay men and transgender individuals, or at
least having heard of them, and that gay men and
transgender individuals have often been present both at
annual Roma celebrations and at the circumcisions
(Suneti) of male children in South Serbia. All expressed
the opinion that communities treat same-sex oriented
men and women equally. However, one of the activists I
interviewed, a Roma activist and feminist, has a
different opinion:
It is easier for men. They can be visible and there
is not so much hatred and resistance as with
women. Women hide it more as they are
exposed to violence and fear conflict because
they are not accepted. Men do not have such a
big problem; the community is more tolerant of
them. Women will be shamed if anyone knew. I
remember couple of gays from my childhood
who worked in homes mostly doing womens
jobs and were not as despised by the community.
It was very unusual for us children men who
were all dressed up with lipstick and nail polish. I
dont remember any women. Women have a
hard time inside the community. Whenever
something like this is mentioned harsh words are
exchanged, insults, accusations of them being
nasty, that they do not deserve to live. Attitudes

57 | D u v l j a r k e

towards lesbians are the same as within the
majority, perhaps even more rigid. These women
are rejected both within their families and their
surroundings as absolutely unacceptable.

The topic of different sexual orientation than
heterosexual with men in Roma communities is not
remotely being done here, especially because
interviews were done both with the activists. Of course,
these remarks do not adequately address the issue of
discrimination against non-heterosexual men living in
Romani communities within the majority community,
and, given their higher visibility, gay Romani men
experience physical, sexual and verbal violence from
majority community. This falls under another issue that
Roma communities need to address. However, what is
important when considering lesbian existence is the
general perception among many Roma regarding the
tolerance Romani communities have towards gay
Romani men in contrast to the relative intolerance
towards Romani lesbians. I believe the disparity in
tolerance toward gay Romani men and Romani lesbians
in Romani communities comes from a common
acceptance of the relative status of all Romani women
within the community.

Interview with a Romani woman and activist. Belgrade, March

58 | D u v l j a r k e

Control over female sexuality
The question then becomes why is it that, within
Romani communities, it is easier to be a homosexual
Romani man than it is to be a homosexual Romani
woman? The answer is that there is undeniable,
patriarchal control over Romani womens lives, and
female sexuality is especially under its prying eye. Many
Romani communities preserve clear unwritten rules
directly governing sexual activity and sexuality itself,
particularly when it comes to Romani women. These
include: protection of virginity, lack of sex education
and an emphasis on obedience and devotion. These
rules are imposed under traditional societal
mechanisms and are reinforced through social,
economic, political and cultural manipulation including
coercion, physical force and violence against women.
Customs and traditions, along with religion, are
oftentimes very powerful instruments for social control
and manipulation while at the same time offering
legitimacy to the methods used to violate womens
human rights. Compulsory heterosexuality and the
subordination of women do not allow them any
opportunities for choice. Arranged marriages are a
prime example of compulsory heterosexuality, and are
quite common especially within poor and less educated
communities. These girls are being brought up to
believe there is no alternative to heterosexual marriage
or life outside heterosexually ordered communities.

59 | D u v l j a r k e

As I have found in my research, lesbians from Roma
communities, much more so than men from the same
communities or women from the majority community,
have difficulties in reaching out to other lesbians. They
talk about their loneliness and their fear of being
revealed and they dread making the mistake of opening
up to a woman who might ridicule them or confiding in
friends who may reject them. Existing prejudices and
hatred towards lesbians place these women under great
pressure. It is extremely difficult for them to come out
either to admit to themselves or to others, that they are
gay. Individually, they must find a way to live and
survive without the visible support of the lesbian
community, or any other organization or institution for
that matter. Only those who do manage to find support
are the ones who have spoken out in this paper.
It is my understanding, based on the interviews that it is
rare for these women to gather as small circles of
friends who are of lesbians. Only a small number say
that they have had any contact with lesbian
organizations and just a few more say that they have
either accessed on-line forums and chat rooms for
lesbians or have had the opportunity to attend
workshops conducted by Romani womens
organizations. Currently, the topic lesbianism has only
recently been taken up by Romani feminists, while in
Serbia the only time LGBT citizens are discussed in the
media are through sensationalized reports on the Pride
Parades. This leads to an environment in which Romani

60 | D u v l j a r k e

women still do not have a place to talk about their
existence or what is happening to them.
Words that sear
Her friend asked her in front of me What is this
Gypsy doing here? And she told him his words
are hurting her. He answered: I don't give a
fuck, it is my right to say what I want. She
withdrew with an 'OK' and as a comfort I got a
kiss on the shoulder and for the next two days
we did not speak because I was hurt and she
would not answer because she knew I wanted to
talk about it...

In order to spend some time with my ex-
girlfriend I accepted [an invitation] to have
coffee outside the building, inside a car in a
parking lot when she wanted it or on a park
bench since I was not good enough to enter her
apartment because of my skin color [and] so she
would not have problems with her brother who
used to be a skinhead and now is a little bit
intolerant to Roma.

Internalized homophobia and internalized racism
The power of homophobia is so great that it holds in
fear both those whom it directly targets and those

Interview with Romani lesbian, South Serbia, February 2013
Interview with Romani lesbian, central Serbia, March 2013

61 | D u v l j a r k e

employing it. Homophobia is one of the patriarchy
toolsanother form of controlling sexuality. It is much
more visible when used against men, both in speech
and in public spaces, whereas when it is used against
women it is often directed often at preserving the
condition of lesbian invisibility. Lesbians are not taken
seriously and violence against lesbians remains invisible
and most often within the private sphere. Compulsory
heterosexuality, aided by homophobia, is at the root of
fear, unease and hatred towards individuals of
homosexual orientation. Many LGBT individuals
themselves have internalized some measure of hatred
towards themselves because of their sexuality. The
ability of someone to accept their sexual identity is
usually followed by several painful processes including
hiding or negating sexuality, or attempting to change it.
The difficulty and pain of everyday life as a self-hating
LGBT person can lead to self-destructive behaviors and
self-inflicted harm, and even suicide. For some lesbian-
identified women, it can result in self-
hypermasculinisation, assuming the role of the classic
patriarchal male and identifying with men and
In addition to homophobia, Romani lesbians, Romani
gay men and transgender Romani people are often also
faced with internalized racism which functions in similar
ways as internalized homophobia, and is accompanied
by feelings of lesser worth and low self-esteem due to
constant repetition of racist feedback from the outside
world. Auto-racism can manifest by emphasizing

62 | D u v l j a r k e

Serbian majority identity through tattoos or jewelry
with nationalistic symbols in order to be better
accepted by members of the majority community. This
is usually followed by behaviors aimed at hiding,
diminishing or negating ones Roma identity. For many
Romani women is a constant need to distance
themselves from those traits most commonly attributed
to Roma, and to expend an immense amount of energy
every day to be dressed impeccably, to be spotlessly
clean and overly responsible at work, in order to avoid
being identified as a Romani woman if not able to fulfill
these standards.
Auto-racism and auto-homophobia leads not just to a
lack of self-recognition, but also results in tolerating
chronic violence, physical and psychological, economic
and sexual, within the family, the school or other public
places where LGBT community gathers. But quite often
it leads to persisting in long-term, abusive intimate
partner relationships.
Her family already accepted her as lesbian and
other girls could visit with her in her house, but I
could not enter her home for a year. This hurt
and insulted me; it was clear why she would not
want me. I was never in the same room with her
family. Nothing has changed: we do not sit at the
same table and do not talk. When it was her
birthday none of them was in the room with the
guests since I was there. We never talked about
this and I dont want to. She tells me to relax but

63 | D u v l j a r k e

I know what they think about me and that my
skin color is the reason for this. This affects our
relationship and I feel very bad about it. This led
me to feeling bad about my [ethnicity], to blame
myself and I get these self-destructive thoughts.

Adaptation and assimilation
Though there is very little discussion about class division
within the Roma communities we should not ignore the
class privileges enabling different levels of personal
freedoms and opportunities. Throughout my entire life,
I have listened to stories about the differences among
Roma groups, about how some are differentmore
successful and betterthan others. My status as a
relatively privileged Romani lesbian means that I am
able to write and publish this kind of paper. In fact,
privilege applies to whether someone can be interested
for this topic at all. As a Romani woman, although I
came from a working-class Romani family, I am aware of
the privileges that I had while growing up. We lived
apart from the Roma settlement, among majority
population, and with steady jobs and reliable income,
life was much less burdened by social expectations. As a
child, I oftentimes wondered about what I had in
common with other Romani children who went to the
same primary school as I did. I did not have much
contact with them, we had never hung out, and I had

Interview with Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, February 2013

64 | D u v l j a r k e

little chance to really meet them because their school
attendance was irregular. My family never socialized
with their families. But at the same time I was very
much aware that at school, in the eyes of both the
teachers and the other pupils, I was a Gypsy and
nothing moreand quite the same as other Romani
Presently in our deeply stratified society the crucial
but highly unpopularterm social class has a great
impact on our abilities to exercise our liberties. Within
the Romani communities, being of an upper class can
help enable integration. Perhaps integration, and
oftentimes assimilation, can aid us in embracing LGBT
identity. I feel it would be unfair of me not to point out
that being integrated into the broader society and being
completely dislocated from Romani communities is a
common characteristic among those Roma who publicly
identify as LGBT and are part of the activist community.
Education and economic independence provide
opportunities for us to be true to ourselves but also give
us a vocabulary for defining ourselves.
But education, economic independence, and insulation
from rigid Roma traditions which reject homosexuality
does not mean that the process of searching for a quiet
life is over. Racism and nationalism are present in Serbia
to great extent and affect our lives on daily basis,
making us feel extremely isolated and vulnerable
without the support of extended family and close
friendships offered by a Romani community. Those who

65 | D u v l j a r k e

canwhether because of their fair skin, their name or
places of residencetypically avoid mentioning their
Roma background within the majority community,
where people are initially not aware of the fact that
these individuals are different, apart from being LGBT.
When a person is discovered to be Roma they often
face hostility, even within the LGBT community.
However, after entering relations with other members
of the majority LGBT community, their awareness about
the existence of Roma LGBT begins to rise.
They started picking on Roma in the lesbian chat
room on the Internet. I said something in their
defense and then someone asked me privately if
I was Roma. I confirmed and then she wrote all
kinds of insults that we are dirty, stealing, that
she never liked Roma people

My ex-girlfriends do not know that I am Roma. I
believe that would be a problem so [that] is the
reason I did not tell [them].

I do not know about any other Romani lesbians.

I know that besides me they do not have Roma
friends. Many times I heard they do not see me

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni, April 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, February 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, February 2013

66 | D u v l j a r k e

as a Roma. They say: you are not like other
Roma; we cannot see you like that.

As Romani women become emancipated they leave the
community they come from as this environment
oftentimes limits their full development and liberty.
Although I have not spoken with any women who hide
their Roma background (as I most likely do not know
them as Roma women), it is my guess that there are
plenty of these women. Our inability to reach out to
other women and share our experiences and identities
reinforces the matrix preserving the mechanisms of
isolation and control. Within Serbian society we need
our Roma community. It is important since the voices of
the women who are included here affirm that we
cannot and must not negate our experiences and
identities as Romani women.
The unspoken word
To be a lesbian feminist means being familiar with the
mechanisms that produce the fear to even utter the
word lesbian as well as the forces that seek to remove
this word, and its meaning, from the language and the
law. Most of the women I talked with while doing this
research called themselves it. There is no public word
to describe their existence, even among other lesbians.
When there is lack of any outside lesbian support
another word is created that carries a meaning for a

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Belgrade, March 2013

67 | D u v l j a r k e

certain group and the very meaning of the word can
vary. Liberation of the language is liberation in other
segments of life. There is a long way ahead of us.
How do I define myself? I can say that I am in a
relationship with a woman. That word lesbian
is unsightly to me as I keep thinking about what
others say: lesbians, dykes. They have made that
word so repulsive. I would always rather say that
I am in a relationship with a woman or just say
that I have a relationship.

Sometimes I hang out with other women who
are the same as me.

It is very different when we talk with people who
do not think that word means something bad
then I can say that I am a lesbian, but with
people who are not lesbians I cannot. I just
cannot utter the word without feeling there is
something in my throat.

Never in my life have I said what you just
mouthed to describe myself, lesbian.

We say that we are girls to each other, before we
spoke only that we are in love.

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, March 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni, December 2012
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni, April 20122013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, March 2013

68 | D u v l j a r k e

I would say for myself that I love women. I rarely
use the word lesbian as I think this way is more
polite. Perhaps I can offend someone. Some may
think it is disgusting, not nice, not to be done.

I have just lately started saying I was a lesbian,
before this I said I was in the game or it. This is
fear and shame to say to yourself you are
lesbian. Feminism strengthened me. Only after
several seminars I started saying what I am.

Due to our invisibility within the language and our
inability to recognize ourselves in others, we often
believe that, if we are not only completely alone in the
world, we are certainly the only lesbians among Roma.
And from here spring the feelings that we are alone and
not belonging anywhere.
Starting from my own personal experience as a person
who is constantly building my own identities (first as
Roma woman and then as a lesbian), one of the
important topics within my interviews is that of
identifying ourselves as Romani women and lesbians.
Here is what some women said about this:

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Belgrade, November 2012
Interview with a Romani lesbian, South Serbia, April 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, March 2013

69 | D u v l j a r k e

Aside being a lesbian Im much more. I dont like
when someone is being identified only with

I do not have any absolute sense of belonging to
any community. It is most likely because of all my
identities; I feel I am not accepted fully
anywhere. This is something that can be easily

I do have a sense of belonging to the Roma
community but I have made a step away and am
not fully part of them now. I am different. This
brought me closer to those that are not Roma,
but I will never be completely part of that world
also. I am neither on heaven nor earth.

ore Jovanovid, a Roma human rights activist and an
openly gay man is the author of one of the rare but
important texts dealing with the intersection of
identities. In his testimony as someone who is both
Roma and gay, he reports: There are many people that
[sic] I know and some of them are very close to me but
they are unable to talk to me about being Roma and
gay. Even when they are particularly interested in the
topic they just do not know the way to approach it. For

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni, December 2012
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni April 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, March 2013

70 | D u v l j a r k e

some this represents a complete taboo especially the
fact of being gay.

Of course, I met women who identify themselves as
lesbian, and as both Roma and lesbian. For some, being
able to self-identify as Romani lesbian is part of the
process of acceptance and liberation, but others will
either never utter the word lesbian, or they will forever
hide the fact they are Roma. This is because of either
straightforward or concealed messages that it is
impossible to be different and yet be accepted as an
equal. What Romani lesbians have in common are
overlapping feelings of being different from the majority
(either ethnically or sexually) and feelings of not
belonging within their own communities; the latter
identity (lesbian) prevents us from feeling complete
belonging with those with whom we share the first
identity (Roma) and well known social constructs that a
Romani woman cannot be a lesbian are imposed on us:
If a woman is a lesbian than she is not a good Romani
woman, that Roma cannot be anything other than a
heterosexual, that there are no transgender Roma
individuals, that the LGBT community is always just that
and nothing else, etc.
The lack of recognition that we can both be Romani
women and lesbians contributes to our confusion and

Rob Kushen, The Challenge of Multiple Discrimination, in Roma
Rights 2 (2009), available at:

71 | D u v l j a r k e

alienation. The fact we are different makes us
Isolation and solitude
Traditionally, within Roma culture, the most severe
punishment that can be handed out to any individual
Roma person is isolation from the community. In the
past, this punishment usually resulted in an inability to
survive and even death. As Roma began settling, and
started establishing and maintaining connections with
members of other nations, the gravity of this
punishment changed over time, but the sense of
necessity to belong and have a network of support
within the community still prevails. Threats of isolation
concern women more than men as men have more
liberties and are thus under less risk of being rejected by
the community. Racism works to keep Romani women
in the ghetto whereas patriarchy within Romani
community helps keep Romani women in isolation
within the home. Women come to accept their position
in the community and family structures and the social
expectations put upon them through hearing examples
of the negative or positive validation of the lives of
other women from the community on a daily basis.
The reaction of the Roma community towards lesbians
is, in most cases, not supportive towards the individual
woman. Most often women do not expect to find a
partner within their own community since there are no
opportunities to meet other Romani lesbians. Not only

72 | D u v l j a r k e

are they forced to keep this important part of
themselves hidden but because they cannot discuss
their personal lives, they remain isolated from each
I just need comfort. I am completely alone. If I
should find her, I do not want anybody to know. I
want everybody to think we are friends. No one
knows about me. I have no place where I can
meet a girl. How should I look, tell me please. I
do not know. I do not want anybody knowing
about me. If they do, I do not know what would

Our surroundings, our upbringing, and our aspirations
enable each of us to have different world views, and
how impact we perceive things like tradition, gender
roles and life expectations. Growing up as Roma, being
part of a community is an important part of our
identities. So far, the experience of Romani lesbian
existence is one where we are usually rejected from our
communitiesour Romani communities, the majority
Serbian communities, the LGBT communities.
Therefore, isolation represents a constant threat to us,
and many of us choose to hide or deny our identities, or
choose self-destruction, rather than face isolation.

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, March 2013

73 | D u v l j a r k e

Marriage voluntary or forced
When I interviewed women gathered in one of the
aforementioned cities, many of them asked me whether
I had ever been married. Knowing that I was a lesbian,
they were curious about why I had never married and
whether my family knew about my sexuality. Although
aware of their sexual orientation and their desires,
some of the women I interviewed entered the marriage
voluntarily, we must not neglect the forcible character
of such marriages as these women had no real
possibility of avoiding these marriages nor were they
given an option to reject entering the marriage imposed
on them.
This is one the story of one of those women:
I was married, to a boy my parents found. I did
not want that, they forced me to marry as they
noticed I had begun to change. I remember
pleading to both parents, extended family, even
some of my friends not to force me to marry. It
was all in vain and finally I agreed. My friends
helped me dress in a wedding gown which was
the first time I had ever put on a dress. They
plucked out my eyebrows and put make up on
my face I did not know how to do any of that.
At the wedding, I was very sad, I did not laugh or
dance I just sat and stared in front of myself.
Everybody noticed this, but I would not say
anything. Married life started as hell for me. I

74 | D u v l j a r k e

knew I needed to sleep with my husband and
that he expected this. The thought of him
touching me gave me panic attacks. For two
weeks I managed to refuse intimacy with him but
after that I just could not avoid it anymore. It
was unbearable for me but I survived by
imagining a friend of mine thus actually realizing
I liked her. My marriage lasted for two months; I
could not stand it anymore and escaped to my
parents telling them that if they wanted me dead
they could return me there. I did not tell the full
truth as they would not understand and would
beat the hell out of me. Soon I realized I was
pregnant and my parents would not hear about
it if there was not to be a father for this child.
They forced me to have an abortion I did not
want it. Today I would have a grown up child and
I am sorry they forced me to do it, too.

There are stories of women who discovered their sexual
orientation after being married and chose to remain
within marital unions as to preserve the image of a
married woman within their communities. This is one of
their stories:
I do not have a good life with my husband but
divorce is impossible. I am with this woman in a
relationship for 4 years and have not been

Interview with a Romani lesbian, South Serbia, February 2013

75 | D u v l j a r k e

sleeping with my husband for a long time. I think
we are together because of the children, now we
already have grandchildren. First I was afraid,
she is my neighbor, 10 years older than me and
had quite a number of affairs with women. I
never had an affair with a woman before and
never had thought about it. Our relationship
started when we comforted each other at that
time I knew she had gone with women. I was
telling her about the beatings from my husband
and inability to sleep with him and she had seen
me on several occasions with bruises. One time,
while we were alone, this happened and I could
not believe it: how is it possible when she was
not a man, when she was a woman. All people
around me [say] hideous things and I also
thought that being a lesbian was ghastly. She did
it first, it was impossible for me to make the first
move I simply had not known how. We are
together when we can, when I can escape. I live
with my husband but we are not intimate
because I dont want it. I know he has other
women, people talk about it but I am not angry.
We are where we are because of the children. He
sees me with women and is not jealous. At first
he thought I had another man and was
unfaithful to him, the idea that I can be without
sex was unconceivable to him. Now, I feel a little

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bit ashamed as I never talked about this to

Violence and threats of violence
As seen in the interviews here, closed communities do
not leave many possibilities for anonymity and freedom
of choice. Even when a young woman is educated and
economically independent, her family and community
continue to control her life and dispute her freedom of
choice. The sentence "You know how Roma ways are" is
often directed at women and youth and it prevents any
recognition of diversity and sexual freedom generally.
This message is also directed at lesbians, but lesbians
use it as well. Of course, a similar statement was heard
within the majority community There is no such thing
with us! In case of sexual orientation we used to hear
this prior to LGBT activists coming out but now almost
nobody say it anymore. But within the Roma
communities such claims are still present.
Reactions of both majority and Roma population to a
sexual orientation that is different from heterosexual
regularly include violence and threats of violence, and in
that way, patriarchy preserves control and power over
women and other marginalized groups. Therefore rare
are the cases of LGBT Roma men and women who
report violence or threats to authorities precisely
because they fear that it might provoke judgment or

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Central Serbia, December 2012

77 | D u v l j a r k e

even more violence. When the fear of possible violence
paralyzes victims and prevents them from reporting,
violence remains invisible.
Below is an account from an activist from one of the
organizations supporting Romani lesbians, followed by
several accounts of women who have been directly
affected by violence against them:
The husband was at work and after he had
returned earlier than usual he found his wife and
their neighbor. At first he thought they were
playing a joke on him and could not believe his
wife was IT. He drove the neighbor away and
beat his own wife. Then he called the neighbors
husband and told him everything and after that
the other husband beat his own wife too. The
first husband threw his wife out and for some
time they did not live together but then she
returned, told him some story about wanting her
family and kids back and he agreed to allow her
to come back. He could not believe his wife was
IT especially because she was a Romani woman.
She never reported her injuries to the police or
anyone, just told us [in the organization].

Interview with a Romani women activist, Vojvodina, November

78 | D u v l j a r k e

I do not know what I would do if anybody would
find out about me. I would escape from here
since anything might happen.

I dont see threats to myself coming only from
the extremists but from regular people [as well].
They are so uninformed and poisoned [with
hatred] that I often believe all of them to be a
threat. I cant know their reactions if they find
out I am lesbian some might only insult me and
some might also physically attack me.

It would have been naive to claim that only men employ
systems of patriarchy against women. Power and
control is exerted by women to great extent when they
become symbolic tormentors, preservers of patriarchy.
Mary Daly in her book Gyn/Ecology describes women in
Africa perpetuating oppressive customary practices
against younger women and thus paying obedience to
the male order. Confirmation of similar behaviors can
be found in every cultural community. In Romani
communities, mothers are the ones responsible for
preserving traditional, patriarchal practices, which
include restricting their daughters movement, ensuring
sexual inactivity and thus securing virginity and
preparing brides to be married. Where the expression of
lesbian sexual orientation is concerned, my research
shows that mothers are most often at the forefront of

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Central Serbia, December 2012
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, December 2012

79 | D u v l j a r k e

defending and sustaining compulsory heterosexuality,
as these testimonies illustrate:
At some point, when my mother heard
information that I kissed my girlfriend, I was just
a teenager and she asked me if this was true.
After I confirmed I received the most horrifying
beating. She took a pair of scissors and cut my
hair off. I could not go to school both because I
was hurt all over and because of the way I

I wanted to live with a girl so we rented a flat.
My mother came and beat me. Then we had to

Mother found me a boy to merry but I declined.
After that I lied about having boyfriends and
showed her my male friends. I was afraid to tell
her the truth.

Trusting the Institutions
In answering the question if and where they would
report violence and threats of violence because of their
sexual identity, most Romani women say they would
report it to the nearest of the three given organizations.
A small number of them said they would contact the

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni, April 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Belgrade, November 2012
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni, April 2013

80 | D u v l j a r k e

police and in that case they would try not to reveal their
sexual orientationeven if the attack was related to
their status as lesbian. A great number of the women I
have interviewed reported having experience with
violence which, keeping in mind the data about
presence of violence in the lives of Romani women, is
not surprising.
I had never talked to anyone about what was
going on in my home after my parents found
that I am lesbian. I can say that I felt lonely but
this would be putting it too mildly. There were
periods when no one would talk to me in my
house. I started to be withdrawn, silent. At
school, my grades started falling, I just sat there
and I might as well be not there. I feared the
weekends and school holidays as I had to be
home then and my home was a violent place. I
wanted to go to the Centre for Social Work but
dared not. I knew somehow that if I would to go
there they would charge my family but
eventually I would have to go back home and be
exposed to violence again.

I left home two years ago but had to return since
I was unable to pay the rent and everything else.
I was forced to return and now everything is

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni, April 2013

81 | D u v l j a r k e

much worse. It is very difficult for me that I had
to return there.

Mutual support and mutual perceptions
There are two organizations in Serbia directly working
on protecting lesbian human rights and offering support
to lesbian community. In the interviews I conducted,
just a small number of Romani women, as lesbians,
address lesbian organizations. It was important for me
to hear activists from these organizations perceptions of
the Romani women who came to them. My interview
with a representative from Labris, a lesbian human
rights organization, confirmed that there is a feeling of
unease among Romani women in their relations with
women from majority population. Ever since Labris was
founded in 1995, they have been visited by just a few
women of Roma ethnicity. Labris activists report their
experience from a seminar on empowering lesbians in
2007 where one of the participants was a Romani
woman who came there through a referral from Romani
womens organizations:
We did not know anything and behaved as
always. Afterwards we received an e-mail and
were very surprised. We thought that she had
just left early to bed as the invitation to socialize
after official program was for everyone. She,
apparently, expected a more direct invitation.

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Belgrade, November 2012

82 | D u v l j a r k e

She wrote that seminar was great but that she
had felt different both because she was a lesbian
and a Romani woman. She needed from us an
additional confirmation that we want her in our
company and that we accept her. We really had
no idea, none of us had ever thought about it
and felt this did not need to happen and talked a
lot about it later within our team.

Data from the Novi Sad Lesbian Organization (NLO)
show that during the period of 2011-2012 their
counseling service for lesbians and bisexual women
offered assistance on 416 occasions to 36 different
women (individual, e-mail and phone consultations).
Out of these, just two women were of Roma
background and accessed the individual consultation
services: one for a shorter and the other for a longer
period of time. NLO activists state that Romani women
only occasionally frequent lesbian places, and that
while they indeed have lesbian friends, it is the general
impression that Romani lesbians cannot feel completely
part of that community because it was the space where
they had some unpleasant experiences (rejection,
judgment, discrimination) because they were Romani
women. Lesbian counselors reported that Romani

Consultation with activists of Labris - organization for lesbian
human rights, Belgrade, March 2013

83 | D u v l j a r k e

women talked of feeling inferior, isolated and rejected,
as if they do not belong there.

As far as Romani lesbians perceive lesbian organizations
I note that only those Romani women who are
otherwise involved in activist circles are even aware of
the existence of Labris and the Novi Sad Lesbian
Organization. All of them also stated that in an event of
violence they would first reach out to the organizations
they gather around, then Labris and NLO and finally to
the police and judicial system.
The Future
When asked about their personal visions for the near
future (for the next five years), thirteen out of 15
interviewees answered that they can only imagine
themselves happy and free living somewhere abroad.
One girl from a small city answered that she planned to
move to a bigger city, while a girl from big city
responded that she wanted to leave home and live
Most responses confirm that Serbia is not a place where
diversity is accepted and where these women feel they
can lead a normal life.
I do not see anything positive in the future. I
wanted to leave Serbia many times because I am

Consultation with activists of Novi Sad Lesbian Organization, Novi
Sad, March 2013

84 | D u v l j a r k e

very tired. The conditions in which I work and live
are extremely difficult and exhaust my energy
and life force.

I do not see myself in Serbia in future. I cannot
live within my four walls as it is expected from
me. This would eventually suffocate me.

I wish I had my own home. [I want to] complete
my education and become somebody. I am
interested in being attached [to someone] but all
that would be secretly.

I do not have work and I think that I will not be
able to find it because of my ethnicity. I think
that all ethnicities should be equally employed. It
does not matter what one does when they leave
work, all must have equal rights. Politicians
should take our side and should not be permitted
to make judgments and express stupid opinions
unless they experienced it. They are not the ones
in our skin. They have no idea of how it is like to
be hungry or beaten They have no idea!

Interview with a Romani lesbian, Belgrade, November 2012
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Ni, April 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, March 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, December 2012

85 | D u v l j a r k e

Romani womens activism and Romani lesbian activism
Despite the fact that all over the world, women actively
contribute to social change, and fight for rights and
liberties, they often remain invisible, and may even
refrain from taking advantage of their rights and
freedoms. Therefore, it is not surprising that even those
Romani lesbians who are also activists likewise do not
often access their freedoms. They oftentimes feel
uneasy in the public spaces within their home towns
(coffee shops for example) and do not feel as if they can
speak freely without fear of being overheard and
discovered as lesbians. For me, this freedom was won
through socializing with lesbians and lesbian activists
who are non-Roma. Claiming spaces which have been
reserved for men of any sexual orientation, is a task we,
as women, need to take on. Activism being done in a
closed spaces and protected workshop environments is
another victory for patriarchy.
The lack of support for lesbians and Romani women
leads to further marginalization and invisibility. Very
often, feminists find themselves in situations where
their feminism can negatively influence their positions
within the community, and even their careers. Others
often automatically associate Romani feminists with
lesbians. Some men, often Roma rights activists
themselves, speak about Romani women activism being
made up of prostitutes and lesbians, hoping that these
epithets will discredit the female activists work and
actively seeking to weaken us. These statements

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provide evidence of their attitudes about women in
general, but, they also represent an attempt to publicly
degrade womens solidarity and networking and to
further prevent any possible inclusion of other women
within Romani women organizations or initiatives.
These critics disregard the facts that the Romani women
movement accepts lesbians and that the majority of
women working towards Romani women rights are
heterosexual. The sole response to such prejudices can
be the stronger solidarity among Roma women.
The support of other organizations and institutions from
outside just the Romani womens and lesbian right
communities is especially important, particularly when
it comes to organizations that have the power and
resources to support social change. We need more than
just the good will of those who work directly to fight
against inequality. We need support from institutions
and organizations that can help sustain our work. Yet,
the experiences of the activists I have spoken with show
there is little of such support. This is due, in part, to the
invisibility of Romani lesbian existence but it is also
because of a lack of recognition about the importance
of the other areas where activists work. In other words,
because institutions and donors dont see us, or
understand the importance of our work, we receive
little support. Therefore, the rare and precious
initiatives working to better the lives of Romani lesbians
often come to an end. One of the project coordinators
speaks about her efforts to create space for Romani

87 | D u v l j a r k e

Upon the completion of our project, we applied
to several donors but received nothing. After that
I stopped writing proposals and we do not have
any project activities now. I am unable to see
women as numbers but rather persons and one
cannot work with them on a purely
mathematical level. But because of my personal
financial standing I had to accept work that took
up all of my days and I did not have the time to
gather the group, nor did we have the money to
meet at coffee shops.

With or without outside support, the fact is that
activism exists and persists because it comes from the
real needs of real women.
I know we are stronger when we are together
but women could not come out from their space,
their settlement, their room. Now they can.

And ultimately, this is the reason I have written this
paper: to help us escape our four walls, if we have walls
at all.
It is not shame and it is not disgraceful to love a

Interview with a Romani lesbian activist, Belgrade, February 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian activist, Novi Beej/Zrenjanin,
February 2013
Interview with a Romani lesbian, Vojvodina, November 2012

88 | D u v l j a r k e

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V Conclusion: Creating community

When I asked participants about whether there are
lesbian communities living in Romani communities, this
was the response I received: there are fewer Roma
lesbian communities when compared with the women
within the majority population. The sense of isolation
and loneliness emphasized by many of the women I
spoke with supports this claim, and illustrates the need
to make Romani lesbian existence visible; however,
since there are but a few out Romani lesbians, the
creation of a community is not an easy task. In my work
I am often in a position to speak in the media about
Romani women, about their position within the society
and about our activities to improve this position. For me
this is a constant coming-out. I keep speaking about
myself as Roma with a small yet constant internalized
sense of unease. Talking with other Romani women who
have invested in their personal emancipation has shown
me that this is something we have in common. Our life
experience has not allowed us to come out as Romani

90 | D u v l j a r k e

women, since it was always connected with other
prejudices. In order to live true to our full identities and
avoid lies and autoracism, we need the support of
others of Romani women that will give us strength
and although we never had all of them close, when we
would meet it was important. The same goes for other
We are now faced with the challenge to publicly come
out as different in a society where it is, to say the least,
not very popular to be different. We are threatened
with rejection, ridicule, blame and harassment over the
phone or online, as well as with physical violence and
intimidation. In addition to perpetuating our isolation,
normative heterosexuality and forms of patriarchy have
an impact on how we set standards for engaging in any
other relationships. The negation of womens lives as
well as the negation of lesbian lives within Romani
communities is a manifestation of deeply rooted
misogyny, homophobia and racism. Moreover, we
cannot forget the fact that with this we are in the
possession of many other identities that are important
to us and to which we desire to dedicate our energies.
There are no existing models or examples for us as we
work to create a culture that will allow us to freely
express all of our identities and live full lives. The
omnipresent homophobia and heterosexism in majority
and Romani communities makes it difficult to see the
connections between the lives of Romani women and
lesbians. How many of our grandmothers, aunts and
female neighbors have lived without men? We have

91 | D u v l j a r k e

grown up with unspoken truths which became semi-
truths and complete lies all in an effort to ignore their
existence and make their lives completely invisible.
Although not all lesbians may be aware of the
subversive effect they have on patriarchy, the
experiences of racism and sexism that we have had as
Romani women can prepare us for change.
Being subversive is a reflection of our ability to
strengthen ourselves by accepting the fact that
throughout our entire lives, we have perceived
ourselves through the eyes of others; others who have
told us what is beautiful, normal, acceptable and
desirable. It is through them that we have adopted
values, thoughts and actions and built our relationships
with ourselves and others. Although important to
forming individual personalities, our identities
oftentimes have an oppressive function and the fact
that unless we have strong identities and do not feel as
if we belong is not our mistake but rather a mistake in
the limited acceptable identities we were offered. The
necessity of deconstructing concepts of identities and
subjectivity that originated within the western science
tradition and policy, racist capitalism governed by male
dominance, progress and adopting nature as the
resource for culture production.
Authors like
Haraway, Chela Sandoval and bell hooks reveal new

Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The
Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, New York, 1991

92 | D u v l j a r k e

possibilities for us: instead of asking ourselves whether
we are good Romani women, we can find strength in
our not belonging. It is necessary to discover an
oppositional awareness with those who have been, as
we have been, denied membership to accepted social
categories for a long time
, those who, the same as us,
have been marginalized within oppressed groups, those
who do not easily fit into preexisting identities. Why is it
important to accept the fact that we do not belong and
identify with all others who also experience rejection?
Because the community of those who do not belong
represents a new political voice whose historical
position is in total opposition to the position of
patriarchal dominance, capitalism and colonialism and
who, from such a position, can construct an identity of
their own comprised of respect for the other and our
The Roma community can be a part of this,
as it shares the experience of not belonging to the
majority, the same as the LGBTIQ communities.
Our resistance to patriarchy will enable us to create a
community of Romani lesbians. Through mutual
recognition, solidarity, building strategic coalitions and
strong political affiliations within a society that has
degraded women and all those who are different, we
can begin to build networks of support to help us begin
to accept ourselves for who we are. Many lesbian


93 | D u v l j a r k e

feminists have said, and still believe, that the love of
oneself and the love of other women represent the
most radical act that a woman can take. In order for
love to exist, it need not be uttered. Silence may hide it
but cannot kill it. When we are connected we receive
strength to talk about love. With this text, love is being
I wrote these pieces because I believe
that women must wage a war against
silence: against socially coerced
silence; against politically preordained
silence; against economically
choreographed silence; against the
silence created by the pain and despair
of sexual abuse and second-class
status. I believe in people: that we can
disavow cruelty and embrace the
simple compassion of social equality. I
dont know why I believe these things;
only that I do believe them and act on

Andrea Dworkin, Letters From A War Zone, New York: Lawrence
Hill Books, 1993

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Vera Kurtid is a radical feminist and a Romani woman. She is an
activist and one of the coordinators of Women Space, an
organization based in Ni, Serbia. Vera is a founding member of the
Romani Women Network of Serbia that gathers organizations and
groups from across the country into a joint and unified force
directed to enhance the position of Romani women. In addition,
she is the member of Labris Lesbian Human Rights Organization
from Belgrade. She studied sociology and communications and is
enrolled in the Gender and Media graduate program at Singidunum
University, Belgrade. Vera is enjoying her lesbian existence.